The other night I was walking home from church over the Metro bridge. And as I was wandering across I noticed long freight train running up the line into Newcastle. It was dark, but on every freight truck quite clearly was written in big letters: 'coal'. The train was carrying coals to Newcastle. As proverb quite literally played out in front of me it was quite a bizarre feeling. You may be having a similar feeling right now as you sit down to hear a sermon in church on religion.
We're in the middle of a series on idols – things that take away our devotion to God. So shouldn't Christians think religion a good thing? Well two hundred years ago if someone had talked about religion they probably would have meant Bible-based Christianity. Sadly that is no longer the case. Religion is now everything and anything. And so for the purposes of this sermon, I'm going to regard religion as the belief you can get to God by following a certain set of rules, traditions or practices. As opposed to what the Bible teaches about God, his infinite perfection and mankind's complete corruption – our inability to reach God.
I want you to imagine that there are about fifty people stuck in a big pit and there's no easy way out. The sides of the pit are very steep and rocks are constantly falling away. A few individuals (probably men) think 'stuff it' I reckon I can do this. And start trying to clamber out by themselves. The others left form little groups to try and work out the best way to overcome the problem before them. They discuss whether they can take it in turns to try and dig their way out. Or whether they could together build a ladder of some sort. Or all shout at once or whatever. Some people try to go it alone while others work together.
The problem is, the Bible says that we are all in a big pit separating us from God and that pit is so deep and the walls so steep that no one will ever be to get out, whether single-handedly or working together, and be with God. The only way anyone can ever be saved is by God stretching down and rescuing us. To think we can get out ourselves is not only insanely stupid it is immensely arrogant.
The individuals in the pit are those who think that by themselves they are good enough to get into heaven or be redeemed or whatever. The groups are those who think that working together, devising a plan, rules, strategies and having a structure they together can get to heaven. And that is religion. And it is just as proud and arrogant as someone trying to go it alone.
Which is why the title of tonight's talk is called ð 'Religion: Pride in Disguise'. For all it's tradition, ceremony and structure – religion is just pride in disguise.
No we could try and think about many different religions and how they are essentially proud devices to get to God. We could try and address Islam, Buddhism, Secularism, Environmentalism or whatever you like. But if you were here a few weeks ago when Rod introduced the series he said we were going to look at idols that we don't typically think of as idols – those which creep under the radar. So what I'd like us to think about tonight is religion that we, as professing Christians, are all capable of.
To do this we'll centre our thinking on the passage read to us earlier, Matthew 23 (page ), and the Pharisees – a very pious and strict group of Israelites. Pharisees don't come across too well in the Bible, Jesus has a number of run-ins with them and Matthew 23 is one of them. Now they weren't all bad – they were a few exceptions, but since the Bible generalises quite a bit and I'm not going to feel too bad doing it myself. The Pharisees hated Jesus, hated the attention he got, hated the miracles he did and hated the truth he spoke. In fact they hated him so much that they were one of key antagonists in bringing about his crucifixion.
So we're going to take the example of the Pharisees and use it as a springboard for looking at religion generally and particularly the temptations facing us today. To do this we're going to think about three clues to 'religion being pride in disguise': Skin-deep beauty Blind leading the blind Distorting the truth
Clue #1: Skin-deep beauty
So, what's our first clue? Skin-deep beauty.
Look with me at the start of verse five of Matthew chapter 23. Jesus describes the Pharisees in pretty blunt terms:
Everything they do is done for men to see
No one could question how much the Pharisees did, they did tons – lots of good, pious, very impressive acts. They spent a lot of their time reading scripture and discussing it. They gave money to the temple. They aimed to obey the absolute letter of the Old Testament – and never break a single command. Their aim was sinless perfection. They did a lot.
But, Jesus says,"Everything they do is done for men to see". They did a lot, but why? They did it, Jesus says, for others to see. Jesus sees through their great and meticulous deeds and looks straight into their hearts, and blows their inner desires wide open. The Pharisees were driven purely by the desire to impress others. They wanted people to look at them and think "Wowzer! That dude is holy." Jesus then gives us a few examples of how they did this (verse 5-7):
They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long
So phylacteries: the book of Deuteronomy (6:6 and 8) says:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts… Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.
So the Pharisees made boxes containing portions of the law and strapped them to their heads and arms. Some put them [here] so the box would literally be close to their hearts. What Moses wanted, whether you physically did it or not, was for God's people to meditate on scripture to have always at the front of their minds and in depths of their heart. But the Pharisees biggest concern wasn't to actually be holy, it to be seen looking holy – so they made these big old boxes that people couldn't help but see. (Because it's kind of hard when in conversation with someone to not spot a little leather chest hanging just above their eyes.)
Similarly, the tassels spoken about in verse five have an Old Testament origin (Numbers 15:38) but their intention had been lost in favour of drawing attention – so the Pharisees made them nice and long. Then, verse six:
they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues
The place of honour at banquets would be right next to the host. That way you look like the person he most wanted to be there and a sure fire way to be admired. The most important seats in the synagogue were right at the front, facing everyone else. They were reserved specially for the elders of the synagogue and if you got to sit in one you couldn't help but be noticed. So when it came to large gatherings and big social events, the Pharisees main concern was being the centre of attention.
Moving on, verse seven:
they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'
Rabbi was a distinguished title meaning 'master' or 'teacher'. A Rabbi would often have a group of students or disciples under him who he would mentor. But the Pharisees interest wasn't in faithfully discharging their duties as a teacher it was instead just the honour of being called Rabbi and the respect that it brought.
The Pharisees did a lot of seemingly good things but underneath it their desires were utterly self-seeking and rendered their good deeds repugnant. Their true motivations, their true heart, changed everything.
Now, I don't see many of you sporting phylacteries or particular long tassels this evening – so are we immune from this sin?
Before me and Kerry were married, and were just friends, we went on a short term mission trip together as part of small team to West Africa. We all travelled together in rather old and dishevelled Toyota pick-up. ð On one occasion there was a particularly rough, pothole-ridden stretch of road. It was raining, very slow going and really quite hard to plan a route through the potholes without getting completely stuck. So, I selflessly volunteered to run in front of the pickup showing it the best route to take. What an amazing sacrificial thing to do. Of course, what I really wanted was just to get out of the infernal pick-up and stretch my and if by a bi-product was Kerry thinking "Oh Wow. Dave's so fit and kind. I want to be his wife!" – all the better!
What could have looked like a selfless loving act was in fact entirely selfish. (And in actual fact I think Kerry just thought I was being stupid.)
Jesus gives his own illustration in verse 27:
You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.
The Pharisees (according to the fashions of the day) looked pretty good. But inside they were selfish, proud and corrupt. Jesus could see straight through them – he knew exactly why they did what they did.
One of the great things about HTG is all the ways in which you can serve and how easy it is to get involved. Service and active participation is all part of being part of a church. Many of you do many good things. You do good Christian things. Of course, I don't know why you do them, I can not look straight through you and see your heart, your motivation. But Jesus can, and does.
There is not a single way of practically serving in this church that cannot be done for the wrong reasons. Whether you are involved in the music, serve tea and coffee, help in crèche or the children's groups, lead Bible studies, preach, clean, or just regularly attend services – it can all be done in the hope that people will look at you and think what a good Christian you are.
Now, I'm not saying because you risk doing something for the wrong reason you shouldn't do anything. What I am saying is look deep inside your heart and assess your motives. Just because you can do something and you want to do something does not mean you are doing it for the right reason. The right reason for anything, ultimately, is for God's glory. The right reason is that God might be made bigger and you smaller. Precisely the opposite of what the Pharisees wanted. Precisely the opposite of pride.
There is, I think, one thing that is very hard to do for self-pride. And as such it is an extremely good indicator of your genuine, pure desire to glorify God and not yourself. That thing is private prayer. Because if it is private no-one sees or really knows about it. There is no obvious tangible self-benefit that others would notice and attribute to our own apparent holiness. By comparison even reading our Bible's privately can be done for the wrong reason because we hope that by knowing more we will be able to impress other Christians more. And if I sound like I know what I'm talking about, I do, from a lot of on going self-experience. In fact this is probably the sin I struggle with the most – just caring too much about what other people think.
So our first clue to uncovering religion as nothing more than pride in disguise is 'public trumps private'. The cure is to honestly recognise how corrupt our motives can be, cast ourselves on the mercy of God, and work to His glory and not our own.
Clue #2: Blind leading the blind
So that's skin-deep beauty. The second clue is 'blind leading the blind'. That is to say religious leaders make religious converts. Look down to verse 13:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
The Pharisees were a group of Israelites who arose, in all likelihood, out of a genuine desire to stay close to God's teaching and not compromise in the lifestyle. So, in home groups we're studying the book of Zechariah – which is about the inhabitants of Jerusalem who had returned from exile. It's thought that it was while the Israelites were in exile that the Pharisees arose. They recognised that Israel wasn't in a good way, they saw their own people being sucked into pagan beliefs and they wanted to do something about. They were, if you like, Old Testament reformers. They wanted God's people to return to God and his ways.
Well, the movement grew and throughout the time between the Old and New Testament the Pharisees were became held in higher and higher regard. So by the time of Jesus they were probably the most influential of the Jewish teachers. If you wanted to know what a bit of scripture meant or what you were do to in a certain situation, you would probably go to a Pharisee.
If there was anyone who should have been a godly preacher or faithful evangelist, it was a Pharisee. They should have been opening the door of the kingdom of heaven but instead, verse 13:
You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
So by the time of the New Testament, they have become utterly corrupt from the inside. But their moral corruption was not confined to their own lives. It was instead was shared like a bad cold. Verse 15:
You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
Because they themselves were dead, they couldn't bring life to anyone. Because they were blind they could never open anyone's eyes.
We, as I'm sure many of you are, are regular frequenters of Saltwell Park. ð And many of you will I'm sure have trundled round the little maze of small conifer trees growing down by Saltwell Towers. Now for you and me of adult height it remains a fairly straight-forward task to get to the middle and out again. But if you are of a pre-school height there has been a monumental change in the last few months.
A few months ago our eldest son Ben, who's five, could easily navigate the maze. He would do so in very vocal fashion giving clear instructions to his younger brothers in which way to go (whether they needed help or not). But the hedge has now reached a critical height where Ben can no longer see over and his younger brothers definitely can't – which makes maze a whole lot more tricky. But Ben, being a typical eldest child, has become no less instructive on which way to go – even though he hasn't a clue. Not only does he get lost and confused, he takes his brothers with him.
We cannot lead people to a true gospel of grace, and not works, if we do not know it ourselves. If our eyes are open we can, with God's help, show others the way.
The application of this for us is twofold: firstly, who holds influence over us and, secondly, who do we influence?
Do the Christian's you respect, the Christian's you listen to, who you'd take advice and council from, who's teaching you submit to, who lead you – are they faithful to the Bible? Is the gospel they 'preach' the gospel found in the Bible - a gospel full of grace and mercy? And do their lives match up to it?
One of the problems with making your main source of Bible teaching the internet, is that you in most cases you only ever hear the guy preach. You don't see him with his family, you don't bump into him in the shops and you don't see him on a bad day. To put it bluntly, you don't know him. That's not to say you shouldn't listen to sermons online. It's to say that your primary source of teaching and being led, should be HTG. Because you can not only hear what the preacher or small group leader says, you can also watch their lives.
And if you're a Christian in a position of leadership in this church and you find that that scares you, it should. I occasionally preach, I'm a home group leader and I'm a dad, and I find this passage of scripture terrifying. You are not only responsible for staying faithful to the gospel for your own benefit but also for those under your care. God has given you people to, in some capacity, take care of. Not because you're really clever or really good but because he believes he can use you in that capacity. Being an integral part of the church and having responsibility does not make you immune from blindness – it just makes the condition even more serious. So we humbly remain faithful to a gospel of grace, knowing our own weaknesses and watching not only what we say but also how we live.
Religion is pride in disguise because it is nothing more than the blind leading the blind.
Clue #3: Distorting the truth
Our third and final clue is that religion distorts the truth.
Read with me from verse 23:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
The Pharisees knew their Bible's very well they would whoop us all at a Bible trivia quiz. But knowing is not the same as understanding.
Jesus accepts that they were very good at tithing – that is giving a tenth of your income or produce to the temple – "you give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cummin". You can just imagine these guys in their little herb gardens carefully dutifully weighing out 10% of their dill.
But while they're excellent at precision they miss the big things – like the character of God:
…you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.
Throughout his ministry Jesus upheld all of the teaching of the Old Testament law. Earlier in Matthew's gospel (5:18-19) he says:
I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…
So Jesus isn't saying careful tithing is a bad thing to do, but he is saying there are more 'important matters' – literally 'weightier matters'. His challenge to the Pharisees was that 'justice, mercy and faithfulness' were central to God's character and so should be central to their lives. They knew the Bible but had distorted it and so got things out of perspective.
Jesus then goes onto to use humour to drive his point home, verse 24:
You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
At the time, gnats were the quintessential tiny creature. (I imagine a classic insult would have been 'you have a brain the size of a gnat'.) I guess flee would be a modern equivalent. Gnats were also ceremonially unclean according to the law. So if a gnat dived bombed a Pharisee's hot cocoa they would need to get the little fella out there before it died or their drink would be rendered unclean. So they would, quite literally, strain out gnats. In comparison a camel was the largest known animal in the Middle East and it also was unclean.
So Jesus paints this exaggerated picture of Pharisees carefully rescuing gnats from their drinks while guzzling entire camels. They'd got things that far out of perspective.
It's a bit like taking a perfectly acceptable photo – fair depiction of reality. Then going a bit OTT on Photoshop and massively exaggerating one element. There's nothing new there – it has all the same elements. But it's now out of perspective and so when you stand back and look at the photo as a whole it really is quite different.
The Pharisees said they held the Bible in high regard, but their final authority was actually a distortion of the Bible – their distortion of the Bible. They had taken commands and exaggerated them, and got them out of perspective with the whole picture.
And as we think of ourselves and the on going temptation we face to make religion an idol, this has got to be the only ultimate remedy – to truly understand God's Word in our hearts. It has to start by knowing the Bible, reading it, remembering it, but it can't just stay in our minds as a mental record of what is right and wrong. We must practice it, that it might drop into our hearts and truly change us.
Are we guilty of just reading in the Bible what we want to see and hear? Just the encouraging bits or the socially acceptable bits? We all enjoy reading about God's love and care, his promises to look after us and those things are really important and wonderful truths. But we must also be prepared to read the bits that don't naturally sit very well with us. The bits about God's holiness and justice – his hatred of sin and wickedness. We must let the Bible form our worldview – our understanding of reality and not let our worldview form our Bible.
The following examples are not a definitive guide with all that's wrong in Christendom, they are just some examples of how this principle should be worked out in our lives:
So, to in our own time only ever read the New Testament and ignore obscure or difficult Old Testament books will get things out of perspective. That's why it's really good we're looking at Zechariah in our small groups – all of Scripture is given to us for our benefit.
It's very popular to get all worked up about the environment at the moment. And God wants us to look after his creation. But for a Christian to speak out very forthrightly about the perils of not recycling but to never say a word against the murder of little children in the womb, commonly called abortion, is to 'neglect the more important matters of the law'. That is getting things out of perspective.
Or to be a regular at church services and home groups and anything with a social element, but to never consider going to the monthly prayer meeting is to distort priorities – to neglect important matters. If as a church, we don't pray, we will never achieve anything of worth.
None of us naturally line-up with God's character – we are all flawed. [Desperately wicked?] So we all have to work against our inclinations and instincts, and submit to what the Bible holds to being really important.
In closing it is right and proper that we take these three clues to religion being pride in disguise and ask in what ways they match up with us personally, or church as a whole. How much of what we do looks impressive but inside is selfish? Or do we work for God's glory alone? Are we following blind leaders or worse are we blind ourselves? Or do carefully check our faithfulness to scripture in what we say and how we live? Is our view and application of the Bible distorted? Or are we prepared to submit our feelings and priorities under the Bible and let God's Word be our absolute authority? We are not just another religion. But if we disconnect what we are doing from why we are doing it, that is exactly what we'll become.
Bible reading plans: